Changing Divorce Laws

Americans do just about everything a bit more spectacularly than most other people. That includes marriage and divorce. The United States has the world’s highest divorce rate and it also leads in the rate of remarriage after divorce, an occurrence that frequently boosts the statistics by leading to yet another breakup. Americans, in short, appear to be marrying more and enjoying it less. This situation distresses clergymen, sociologists and anthropologists, who rightly regard stable marriage as the foundation of society. But it is only half the tragedy of divorce in America.

The real scandal is not that so many Americans resort to divorce. It is that so many of the laws of the land are sadly out of step with the growing recognition that, for both married couples and society, divorce is often preferable to a dead marriage. Divorce laws should be changed in ways that will be more equitable for all parties. The most significant happening in the divorce field is a widespread and growing attack on those laws. Whatever else marriage may be, the state regards it as a public contract that only the state can dissolve.

The laws that govern that dissolution in the United States, however, are not only widely conflicting and confusing—all 50 states have their own laws —but are based on notions that are out of touch with the changing realities of modern society. Most of them tend to embitter spouses, neglect the welfare of the children, prevent reconciliation and produce a large measure of hypocrisy, double-dealing and perjury. Looking at the welter of divorce laws in the United States, David R. Mace, executive director of the American Association of Marriage Counselors, can only call it “an absolutely ghastly, dreadful, deplorably messy situation.”(s) Across the United States, judges, lawyers and marriage experts are raising an urgent cry that it is time to reform and humanize the divorce system.

The system has not only succeeded in making divorce unpleasant, complicated and expensive; it has been woefully ineffective in its original aim of holding down divorce and protecting society from the problems that breakups produce. Roughly 400,000 United States couples are being divorced each year. About 40% of them are childless; the rest have some 500,000 children, two-thirds of them under the age of ten. More than 6,000,000 Americans are now divorced or separated, and divorce seems to breed divorce: probably half of all divorced Americans are the children of divorced parents

Divorce or separation occur most among the poor, the least educated, the well-educated and couples with three or more children. Increasingly, it is a problem of the young: 46% of all divorces involve girls who marry in their teens, and 74% those who marry under 25. Conversely, an estimated 85% of Americans who marry at the age of 25 or over stay married. Even so, there is a growing trend for couples to split up in middle age after the kids have left home and husband and wife have discovered that they no longer can, or want to, get along.

Though Roman Catholics get fewer divorces than others because of their church’s proscriptions, they are not very far behind the Protestant breakup rate because of desertions, separations and annulments. Most Americans still agree with Dr. Lawrence S. Kubie, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland, that “divorce is always a tragedy no matter how civilized the handling of it, always a confession of human failure, even when it is the sorry better of sorry alternatives.”(s) But Americans are more relaxed, tolerant and realistic about divorce than they used to be.

Though vestiges of social stigma because of divorce still remain in small United States communities, most of the nation long ago decided that a happy divorce, when such can be accomplished, is better than an unhappy marriage, or what British Author A. P. Herbert called “holy deadlock.” (s) Because of this attitude, many of the attacks that used to be directed at divorce itself have now shifted to the law. The pressure to make divorce laws more humane also draws strength from the realization that the divorce rate, while hardly anything to boast about, is not really as alarming as it is often made out to be. The rate of divorce in the United States has actually held rather steady for 15 years, and the vast majority of Americans still stay married “until death do us part.”(s)

The rate hit an all-time high of 18.2 divorces per 1,000 existing marriages in 1946, when many hasty wartime marriages were dissolved. Since then it has dropped to 9.2 per 1,000, not much above the 6.6-per-1,000 figure that was the norm in 1920. Another reason for a more realistic appraisal of divorce laws is a deeper understanding of what causes marital breakups. While sex, money and incompatibility are the traditional reasons for divorce, a mobile and changing urban society has loosened many of the bonds that once held marriage together, depriving men of their absolute dominance, giving women a large measure of economic independence and weakening the sense of kinship.

Marriage means happiness to Americans—and its inevitable problems seem to catch them by surprise. Mistakes are also easier to make in a day when mating is more random than ever. Unlike the divorce laws, the laws of marriage are simplicity itself: a girl can marry at 18 in most states without parental consent, and 20 states do not even bother with the normal three-day wait after a blood test.

Many who get married do not seem to know quite what it is all about; a survey showed that United States teen-agers agree widely on only one marital duty: that the man should take out the garbage. The argument that children suffer most by a divorce no longer seems to be a deterrent; many psychiatrists believe that they can adjust nicely to an orderly divorce. “Divorce is not the costliest experience possible to a child,” says Child Psychiatrist J. Louise Despert. (s) “Unhappy marriage without divorce can be far more destructive.” (s) The gradual weakening of religious strictures against divorce has also tended to make it more acceptable; all but the most fundamental United States Protestants now accept civil divorce—and the “new moralists” go further. In destructive family situations, says the Rev.

Dr. Joseph F. Fletcher, professor of Christian social ethics at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Mass., “divorce is the good thing to do: not merely excusable, but rather the greatest of all goods. The divorce rate is a social symptom of increased respect for personal freedom and for genuine marriage commitment.”(S) That is a far cry from Christ’s unequivocal condemnation of the Mosaic right of Jewish husbands to banish their wives at will: “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”

(S) Still, it is hardly a surprise. The bonds of Christian matrimony have been slowly loosening ever since the 12th century church began granting annulments and separations. At Luther’s urging, the Protestant Reformation approved secular divorce for grounds of adultery or desertion. Such Catholic countries as Italy and Argentina still ban divorce, but many others, from Japan to Sweden, have reached the point of permitting divorce by mutual consent.

United States divorce laws theoretically shun the idea of mutual consent because it offends religious tradition and raises the specter of too many marriages being dissolved by whim or passing despair. In practice, however, 90% of United States divorces actually involve mutual consent that is disguised by legal hocus-pocus or outright perjury. Reason: the whole United States approach begins with a disastrous premise. Instead of recognizing that both parties are almost always partly to blame, United States law demands verified proof of “fault” by one partner—and only one.

The insistence seems almost sadistic: the “innocent” party must prove his or her mate “guilty” of offenses for which divorce is the punishment. The result is that the typical United States divorce trial is a farce that totally abdicates society’s interest in salvaging marriage whenever possible. Most couples hammer out a collusive pretrial agreement in which one consents to accept the fault. The couple may sue on any of 47 assorted grounds, depending on the state.

All 50 states recognize adultery as grounds for divorce, 44 accept cruelty, 47 desertion, 29 nonsupport, 40 alcoholism, 43 the commission of a felony and 32 impotence. By far the most common ground is the vague “cruelty,” a catchall that conceals more than it reveals. The harried judge, in fact, rarely hears the true story, usually signs the divorce agreement after only perfunctory questioning. The defendant in the case has every reason to lie: the size of the alimony, the custody of the children and even the right to remarry may well depend on what the agreement says about his guilt.

The real combat takes place in lawyers’ offices as the parties bargain—and punishes each other. Now the woman scorned makes the cad pay: alimony may cost the husband one-third of his income, in some cases may continue even after his wife remarries. Children become pawns in the bargaining process: if he holds down alimony, she holds down visiting privileges. The hotter the fight, the higher the fees; some unscrupulous lawyers even inflame the sides to inflate the charges. Meanwhile, no one represents the children.

They are commonly awarded like trophies to the “innocent” party, who is not necessarily the best parent. The spouses usually part more bitterly than they began. The tougher the state, the bigger the lies. New York is the only state with only one ground for divorce: adultery as proved by third-party testimony. As a result, divorces that are contested by one of the parties roil in perjury and mudslinging. In uncontested cases, New Yorkers can get divorced by hiring a professional “other woman,” but many childless couples prefer to seek annulments based on phony claims of refusal to bear children; New York has more annulments than any other state.

Whatever their other disagreements may be, affluent couples usually agree to flee to divorce in easier states. A strong drive is being conducted in the New York legislature to reform the state’s 1787 divorce law, a reform that has long been opposed by spokesmen of the Catholic Church.

This time, though church spokesmen have asked for a delay in consideration of the reform bill, a group of Catholic laymen has urged its passage, and the prospects look better. In theory, United States marriages can be ended only by the state of domicile—the state in which the parties really live. Actually, such states as Idaho and Nevada permit divorce after only six weeks’ residence, and solemnly accept the visitor’s lie that he or she aims to stay. The other states, including New York, accept such divorces because the Constitution commands all states to give “full faith and credit” to one another’s court judgments. On the other hand, no state is required to recognize the highly popular 24-hour Mexican divorce, which shuns the domicile lie and mainly involves mutual consent.

The only state that fully recognizes Mexican divorce is New York—all because its own archaic law has forced more than 250,000 New Yorkers to get Mexican divorces. Even United States “migratory divorces” can be challenged when the divorcing state does not have proper jurisdiction over the divorcing couples. For this reason, reformers have long urged a uniform federal divorce code. Congress has no power to enact one without a constitutional amendment, and every proposed amendment since 1884 has failed because states jealously guard their right to marriage and divorce laws based on local conditions and moral attitudes. In fact, a federal law that would supersede local law is not necessary.

The states ideally should get together and work out a uniform divorce code that would be agreeable to all of them, with local options where necessary. There are still many things that states can do individually to make divorce a more civilized process, including broader grounds and interlocutory decrees that give couples several months to think things over before divorce becomes final. But even such healthy changes are not enough to cure the nation’s sick divorce laws. What the United States really needs is something far more drastic: a complete new approach that totally banishes “fault” and all its sleazy consequences.

The most sensible solution would be a system that readily grants divorce only after skilled clinicians confirm that a marriage is beyond repair. In many cases, divorce might be harder to get; in all, it would be far more humane. While insisting that divorce be made a more rational process, most marriage experts also believe that many of the divorces that now take place can be prevented.

One of the most effective, though not yet widespread, ways of helping to prevent divorce is the conciliation court. Eighteen states have already set up more than three dozen such courts, many of which try to mend marriages with the aid of full-time staff psychologists and social workers. The courts have an overall record of intact marriages in 33% of the cases voluntarily brought before them. They try to get the couple to communicate with each other once more, to concentrate on what they have in common rather than what separates them and to analyze for themselves the problems that are interfering with their marriage. In Toledo, Judge Paul W.

Alexander’s much-admired conciliation court averts divorce in 44% of the cases it tackles. In Los Angeles, Judge Roger A. Pfaff’s conciliation court gets 50% of its business from lawyers who refer unhappy spouses even before they file divorce suits. With the aid of eleven highly trained counselors who must have at least ten years’ experience, Pfaff’s court helps more than 4,000 volunteer couples a year, gets 60% of them to make up and sign detailed “husband-wife” agreements that have the force of law.

“Divorce courts throughout America are burying marriages that are still alive,” says Meyer Elkin, Pfaff’s supervising counselor.(S) The success of conciliation courts proves that it is perfectly possible to create a rational divorce system that saves as well as severs—if the United States wants it. In a culture addicted to romance, few legislators are likely to propose the ultimate solution to fewer divorces: make marriage tougher. Even a month’s wait would probably cut the divorce rate quite a bit, but education in what to expect of marriage seems a more likely solution. Many experts are working to get courses in marriage in the schools.

Most engaged Catholic couples now get premarital counseling at pre-Cana conferences (named for the Cana wedding feast at which Christ miraculously turned water to wine), and Protestant churches are increasingly offering some form of premarital advice; both offer talks by doctors, clergymen and counselors. In addition, the new art of family therapy has made impressive gains in analyzing the complex psychological equations that create United States marriage. When frustration jars the equation, warring couples often become blinded by hostility and feel so unique and helpless that they wind up divorcing. Today a skilled therapist may well save the marriage—or at least keep an inevitable divorce from becoming too bitter.

The new realism about divorce in the United States is thus combined with a new optimism about reconciliation under the law. In modern America, as elsewhere, marital happiness is at once more important and less certain than ever before. To the couples involved, a marital breakup is an intensely personal affair, full of anguish, doubt and a sense of failure. By insisting on the public character of divorce as well, United States law takes upon itself certain responsibilities that it has not yet fulfilled, which is why divorce laws should be changed in ways that will be equal for both parties. The time has come for a compassionate law that would prevent divorce when it honorably could and, when it could not, leave an unhappy couple with a maximum of dignity and a minimum of bitterness.